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From Colonial Finance to Financialization: Concepts, Methodologies, and Research Questions

RoundTable I-3, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
While capitalism has been at the forefront of critical scholarship in Middle East studies, the study of finance, financialization, money, and financial institutions remains under formation across disciplines. Focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries, this roundtable will recenter finance as an integral dimension of historicizing and conceptualizing capitalist expansion, empire building, class formation, and state building in the region. The roundtable will bring together scholars across different disciplines (history, anthropology, political economy) working on finance and money to discuss new and promising avenues of inquiry. Participants will examine the different conceptual frameworks, methodological approaches, and available resources that may be drawn upon to research finance in the MENA region. Emphasis will be placed on theorizing finance in a non-Euro-American context, identifying potential topics and research questions in different countries and across subregions, and exploring the availability and accessibility of sources (data, archives, ethnographic methods). The roundtable seeks to highlight the importance of cross-disciplinary conversations as they offer tools to rethink the relationship between finance and state-making, class formation, imperialism, colonialism, and neoliberalism. Finance-related concepts and topics under discussion will include: European colonial finance and banknote issuing institutions in comparative perspective across MENA, finance, and conflict in relation to national central banking and monetary experts, Ottoman sovereign debt and anti-colonial rebellion, currency regimes and resistance to French empire in the Maghreb, and financialization via the housing market under settler-colonialism in Palestine. Understanding the history of financial and monetary regimes in North Africa and the Middle East is crucial to apprehending the origins and state of financial governance today amid a rise in financial turmoil and instability. Through highlighting critical approaches to the study of finance, this roundtable hopes to illuminate alternative histories of (de)colonization and capitalism in the region and beyond.
  • Title: Finance and Conflict in MENA: Unconventional Histories of Central Banks. Statement: Conflict in MENA is usually studied in relation to religious extremism, authoritarianism, oil, or geopolitics. These approaches often recycle stereotypical themes such as terrorism, violence, and rentier states. My research into financial systems challenges these assumptions by pursuing unconventional histories of central banks in relation to conflict. My roundtable presentation will examine the understudied connection between financial governance and conflict in MENA. More specifically, I will reflect on the historical role and institutional transformation of central banks (CBs) during times of conflict. Major flashpoints include WWI, the 1956 Suez crisis, and the 1973 oil embargo. CBs are the nerve center of national and international financial governance. They are key managers of capital flows, public debt, hyperinflation, and financial sanctions. As such, CBs policies have a direct impact on the stability of national currency systems. Histories of currency and central banking in Europe, the Americas, and East Asia have come a long way. Not so in the Middle East, where central banking studies are largely written by the banking community and international organizations. Drawing on several years of archival research and data analysis, I will suggest new methodologies that might expand our understanding of financial history and state making in the region. This interdisciplinary approach merges political economy with intellectual history. It involves prioritizing the agency of people and institutions. Financial institutions like CBs are a product of “great debates” or “great persuasions” about policymaking. They also operate within business and bureaucratic cultures that are dynamic and transnational. The research presentation will incorporate the historical agency of central bankers and international financial experts, otherwise known as money doctors, into the escalation or resolution of conflicts. I will also consider the challenges of accessing government and private archives on financial data in the region. Other avenues of inquiry to be discussed include the trans-regional linkages of MENA financial systems, like the Rupee-based currency regime, to those of South Asia and West Africa. As such, examining the region’s financial order is not about adding one more case study. It is about the co-constitution of global and Middle Eastern financial systems and politically stable or unstable orders. This equally applies to theorizing the role of financial experts. I will examine these roles in light of three theoretical perspectives as catalysts for modernization or enforcers of hegemony of global powers
  • The financialised debt that the Ottoman empire, Ottoman Egypt, and Qajar Iran incurred in the nineteenth century is rarely situated in the same analytical frame as the widespread peasant indebtedness or reconfiguration of land relations prevalent in the same period. The latter came about through various land reform projects, arguably engendering new forms of indebtedness amongst peasantries. My roundtable presentation will discuss methodological approaches to address this gap. I will do so by drawing on my research into the Mahdist uprising in Sudan. The significance of nineteenth century financialised debts has been sorely underexplored given the substantial ways in which they reorganised forms of life, engendered new techniques of government and produced new structures of extraction and accumulation (the legacies of which endure in the present). This is notwithstanding the fact that anthropologists have long demonstrated how transformations in debt/credit relations, especially when they shift from being open-ended to being quantified/monetised, reconfigure subjectivities. Debt can change from being the basis of sociality and community to a violent, individuating relationship—and this violence marks a rupture in ethical relations. Given this rupture, what happens when we centre the ethical—even the messianic—in our stories of credit, debt, and finance? To explore this, I will offer a critique of nineteenth century financialised debt in the Ottoman world through the lens of a major 'peasant' rebellion in Sudan. In 1881, at the height of the Ottoman Egyptian debt crisis, the Mahdist uprising expelled Ottoman and European forces from Sudan, calling for the ethical reconstitution of people at the ‘End of Times.’ Its archive—like much of the history of nineteenth century Sudan—has been read through the bifurcated conceptual and disciplinary lenses of ‘religion’ and ‘economy.’ That is, the Mahdiyya is often dismissed as a religious, if not fanatical, movement and its voluminous written record is rarely taken seriously as a form of critique. Yet, its corpus engages the widespread transformations that superseded our binary frameworks of ‘religion’ and ‘economy,’ including debt, credit, land, and law. In my presentation, I will argue that taking the movement’s language of kufr seriously, i.e. exploring it as an analytic, reveals the ways in which “political-economic” and juridical relations, including the shari’a, underwent radical transformation to facilitate extraction, monetised debt and widespread dispossession. Indeed, I argue that the Mahdist archive offers an alternative conceptual repository, an alternative imaginary and architecture, through which to understand these changes.
  • Currency Regimes and Monetary Crises: Insights from the Archives of the Tunisian Protectorate This intervention looks at archives of currency and monetary regimes in the Tunisian Protectorate. From the Great Depression of the 1930s to Tunisia’s independence in 1956, official archives around the management of currency, questions of devaluation, or problems with counterfeit illuminate the nature of colonial rule in the 20th century. The first half of the twentieth century constitutes a period of monetary and financial transformations which have consequences until today, yet archives on money have seldom been examined in North Africa. Using French colonial archives on the Bank of Algeria and Tunisia as well as a plethora of documents (cables, ministry bulletins, press articles …) circulating between the colonial metropole and North African colonies, this roundtable presentation argues for the centrality of money as a simultaneous tool of colonial power and resistance to it. It ultimately asks: what does it mean to study power through the lens of money? French colonial authorities used a shared currency between two territories managed radically differently, French Algeria, a settler-colony, and the Tunisian Protectorate, under indirect rule. Yet the common currency served to inscribe the permanence of coloniality –for example by issuing new coins or limiting how money gets transacted– through monetary regimes. At the same time, money mirrored political crises as well as modes of subversions and resistance –from financing resistance to creating regional belonging– that ultimately unsettled power under the French empire. This presentation considers how archives of money help write alternative political histories of rule, unraveling anxieties of power in a colonial setting. Tracing the history of Tunisia and the Maghrib through currency unsettles nationalist accounts. Instead, continuities visible on the surface of money emerge, disrupting sanctioned chronologies that imagine radical breaks between colonial, postcolonial, and contemporary times. Ultimately, this presentation reckons with the importance of archives of monetary and financial systems in better understanding of the modern history of North Africa.
  • Financial Inclusion under Settler Colonialism: Housing 1948 Palestinians: Emerging scholarship on the political economy of debt and housing markets within the Palestinian context is yet to address the case of 1948 Palestinians (commonly referred to as Palestinian citizens of Israel, PCI). My current research strives to fill this gap by examining Israeli “financial inclusion” policies targeting PCI. Exploring these policies’ historical development, neoliberal character and implication for the Palestinian housing sector can shed light on the broader themes of class formation and financialization under regimes of racial domination in general and Israeli settler-colonialism in particular. As holders of Israeli citizenship, 1948 Palestinians face a specific form of marginalisation that differs from Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and those living in refugee camps outside historical Palestine or in the diaspora. Their experience of Israeli settler-colonialism is significantly mediated through their access and incorporation into Israel’s financial, housing, and labour markets. In the last two decades, increasing access credit and the doubling of granted mortgages have become a central mechanism of such incorporation. Yet despite the specificity of their situation, it is not disconnected from, global dynamics of finance capitalism. In the roundtable, I will situate 1948 Palestinians within theoretical work on financial markets, debt, inequality and marginalisation, exploring questions of how their socio-political reality is shaped by global capitalist dynamics and a regime of racial domination. In dialogue with fellow participants, I hope to explore how attention to financial systems can help shift the debate away from a framework of exceptionalism that pervades scholarly research on Palestine and help contemplate future trajectories of resistance for Palestinians. My remarks also intend to facilitate discussion on the methodological approaches to doing research on financial markets in the context of a settler colonial state. My project integrates quantitative and qualitative research methods including: content analysis of primary and secondary Hebrew, Arabic, and English sources including Israeli governmental plans and policies. Semi-structured interviews with policy makers, mortgage lenders, creditors, and indebted 1948 Palestinians between the ages of 20-45, who are the prime target of Israeli mortgage lenders and creditors. A survey to assess the shape and depth of 1948 Palestinians indebtedness. This is crucial due to the challenge in obtaining accurate disaggregated data on 1948 Palestinians, due to lack of disclosure, irregular publication by private and public institutions, and the paucity of such data more generally.